While the end of a war is always welcome, the process of demobilizing and reintegrating veterans is far from simple. For a conflict on the scale of the ongoing fight in Ukraine—a war in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian citizens and thousands of foreign volunteers have fought—the prospect will be particularly daunting. For policymakers in Kyiv and Moscow, the question of how to manage the hundreds of thousands of military-aged men and women that have participated in the war will be especially challenging. Such large numbers of veterans returning to civilian life may be especially difficult for their economies to absorb. In such a context, veterans of the war may do as so many before them have done—take their combat experience on the road. The implications–for international law, humanitarian considerations, and how the next conflicts could be fought–are immense.
Though many veterans return to civilian life after the end of war, many others do not. Beyond those who go on to serve in their home states’ militaries, countless others over the past two centuries have gone on to fight abroad. Some veterans opt to join the military of another state, and indeed at this very moment some thirty states accept these legionnaires into their armies. In the wars of decolonization, some veterans also fought as foreign fighters in nationalist and insurgent movements that struggled for self-determination and the end of empire while others foreigners joined either as mercenaries or volunteers to pushback against the winds of change.
A Rare Quality—Conventional Warfare Experience
Why would veterans of Ukraine’s conflict even be desirable? Two factors could be especially attractive to foreign states and non-state organizations alike: conventional combat experience and quantity. Since the end of the Korean War, most global conflicts have either been insurgencies or civil wars. This has been particularly true in the twenty-first century, as conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Syria underscore. By contrast, at least before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conventional interstate wars have been more of an exception and often comparatively brief, whether it is the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (seventy-eight days), the Falklands War (two months), the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (less than a month), the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six Day War), or Operation Desert Storm during the First Gulf War (one hundred hours).
With a military manpower market saturated with soldiers with expertise in unconventional warfare, veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war stand out for their unique—and uniquely valuable—expertise. Over the past eighteen months of conflict, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have been gaining experience in large-scale conventional warfare that few others, including major military powers, can claim. Arguably neither the United States nor China, for example, have fought a strong conventional adversary since their run-ins with Vietnamese troops in the 1970s.
Recent experience gained by the US and its allies during the campaigns of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) have had limited transferability towards conventional war. In early 2022, the Ukrainian government welcomed foreign volunteers with a preference for combat veterans but the results have been mixed. The asymmetric nature of the fighting during the GWOT, which pitted materially superior Western forces against groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban that lacked heavy artillery or airpower, meant that western legionnaires fighting for Ukraine have contributed marginal benefits. In the wars of tomorrow, Russian or Ukrainian veterans may be seen as attractive possibilities.
Competing Brands—Russian and Ukrainian Personnel
Veterans of the militaries from the Russian Federation and Ukraine offer distinct profiles that potential employers might find desirable. While Western media has largely emphasized the shortcomings of the Russian military, this perception is not universal. In a poll conducted for the European Council on Foreign Relations between December 2022 and January 2023, around three quarters of Chinese, Indian, and Turkish respondents were found to view Russia as being either as strong or stronger than before February 2022. This perception is likely to also apply in other parts of the Global South, as reflected by decisions by countries like Mali to welcome the Wagner Group or to continue joint exercises, such as in the case of South Africa.
Russia’s continued war effort, even as Ukraine receives Western money and weaponry, may inadvertently bolster its image among some audiences, giving Moscow the opportunity to claim that it is fighting the world’s largest military alliance single-handedly. This perception, which for several years on Chinese online circles has led to Russia being given the tongue-in-cheek nickname “the fighting nation” (战斗民族), could continue to nourish the image of Russia as an underdog resisting the hegemonic Western powers, as the Singaporean retired diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani has noted.
Furthermore, in a world trending away from American hegemony and towards greater multipolar competition, having options is increasingly desirable for smaller states and medium-sized power. Coupled with growing antipathy towards Western powers as a result of unilateral sanctions and conditionality of aid, Russia can continue to be seen as more attractive as a security provider. In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one army official explained the frustration “Why have endless meetings with the West—including the U.N.? Why not do as Mali and [the Central African Republic] have done and switch to Russia?” In his interviews with officials across the DRC’s government, University of Antwerp’s Kristof Titeca came across the same sentiment: “We’ve tried the EU, the U.S., China. Why don’t we try Russia?” This desire for Russian capacity and political alignment may prove to be a winning combination.
On the other side of the conflict, Ukrainian troops have impressed many in their ability to overcome significant odds, particularly given the widespread fears at the conflict’s outset that Kyiv would suffer a rapid defeat. Beyond the impressive resilience of Ukrainian personnel, Kyiv’s veterans are gaining other attributes that governments in the future may find valuable in future recruits. Most notably, swaths of Ukrainian personnel are receiving US-provided combined arms and other sophisticated training, as well as hands-on experience operating advanced American and European weapons systems found across the NATO alliance.
Have Combat Experience, Will Travel?
While small states can sometimes punch above their weight, e.g. Israel, population and production capacity often constrain their military potential. Take the United Arab Emirates as an example, which former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once named “Little Sparta.” Despite its significant regional ambitions, manifesting in recent years in military deployments to Yemen and Libya, its high standard of living and small population present recurrent challenges to recruiting military manpower. With most inhabitants (90%) being foreign nationals, the Emirates has a citizen population of merely a million. Necked down to the male citizen population that would actually be able to serve due to age and fitness, the country’s militarily eligible citizenry would likely be smaller than the number that Russia was able to enlist during its partial mobilization in September 2022 alone.
Already, the Emirates has outsourced some of its military needs. Its Presidential Guard and Joint Aviation Head have both been headed by foreigners, especially from Australia. While acknowledging that funding for fighters in Libya remains “ambiguous,” the Defense Intelligence Agency “assessed that the United Arab Emirates may provide some financing for the [Wagner] group’s operations,” according to a report by the U.S. Department of Defense. Whereas Abu Dhabi to date has primarily turned to Australian and Western personnel to staff its military, it may seek to diversify the source of their human resources. While hiring Ukrainians could prevent headaches with Washington, the Emirates have shown a willingness to take an independent path. Ever closer relations with Russia, including after February 2022, as well as a purchase of Chinese L-15 multirole military aircrafts suggests that Russian veterans are not necessarily off the table. Meanwhile, prior efforts by the United States to kick the Wagner Group out of Libya and Sudan, including through pressuring allies like Egypt to use their influence, largely failed to produce any changes.
The ability to provide security services, whether by states themselves or through PMCs, can enhance a government’s soft power. For Russia, it could be attractive to parlay its large veteran population and increasingly militarized industry to continue to play the role of a security provider abroad—whether through direct state-to-state support, via security corporations, or by permitting its citizens to fight for friendly nations abroad. Even if Russia, Ukraine, or both did not actively encourage such policies, states face immense difficulties preventing their veterans from offering their combat services abroad. Laws against enlisting in a foreign military as a legionnaire or as a private contractor are few and far between, while much legislation to date has prioritized preventing citizens from joining terrorist or insurgent groups. And even where such laws do exist, citizens have long found ways to skirt them.
From Veteran to Legionnaire, Contractor, or Mercenary
Just because a war ends does not automatically mean that veterans of Ukraine’s war will pack their bags and become soldiers of fortune. Rather, viable paths must usually exist, including ones that actively seek out mercenaries. There are likely three ways forward: state-backed (private) military companies (PMC), direct recruitment by foreign militaries, and solicitation by non-state actors. With Ukraine potentially facing a greater demobilized population per capita and with the acute economic challenges of rebuilding a devastated country, one could imagine many paths through which the country’s veterans may enter military service abroad. Some governments, like Nepal, actually facilitate and regulate the recruitment of their citizens into foreign militaries.
The ongoing fighting in Ukraine has brought the Wagner Group to international fame (or infamy), even though the PMC dates back several years and its activities span the globe, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa. While it had since expanded to recruit prisoners as well as those simply looking for better economic opportunities, its initial core remained ex-Russian servicemen, and it may serve as a model for others. Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic and Kremlin ally, has expressed interest in establishing his own PMC, believing that “We can say confidently that Wagner has shown its mettle in military terms and drawn a line under discussions about whether or not such private military companies are needed.” He added, “When my service to the state is completed, I seriously plan to compete with our dear brother [and Wagner Group owner] Yevgeny Prigozhin and create a private military company.” (During the aborted Wagner mutiny, Kadyrov’s forces were called in with Kadyrov himself accusing Prigozhin of treason.) Meanwhile, the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom is reportedly getting involved in the mercenary trade, allegedly forming its own volunteer battalions. While these are so far concentrated on the conflict in Ukraine, what is to say that they cannot be deployed elsewhere later?
Growing options to serve in private armies, coupled with the difficulties veterans too often face reintegrating to civilian life, could also result in some Russians and Ukrainians heading to new battlefields as volunteers. Past military experience, especially in war, is a good predictor for propensity to sign up—and Europeans are far from immune to this trend. Swedish volunteers who went to fight in the Yugoslav Wars for pro-Croat units during the 1990s were more likely than not to have gone through conscription. On the other side of the frontline, many of the mujahideen that traveled to Bosnia had already gotten a taste for war in Afghanistan. With hundreds of thousands so far having gone through combat, even a small proportion of Russian and Ukrainians could lead to thousands of mercenaries.
There are likewise plenty of options for veterans of the war who prefer to remain in uniform. Dozens of countries recruit such personnel as legionnaires—noncitizens who serve in the armed forces of a state that is not their own. Democracies like Australia and the United States have policies to allow noncitizens to serve, with established policies and even pathways for citizenship—much like Ukraine’s own foreign legion. For other Russian and Ukrainian veterans, service in Gulf militaries could be particularly attractive, and lucrative. Veterans of the conflict could find enlisting in a foreign army attractive for a myriad of reasons, even beyond financial opportunity or the comradery of military service. Unlike service as a private military contractor, legionnaires are exempt from international laws prohibiting the recruitment, training, or funding of mercenaries—an invaluable legal protection.
Dangers, Complications, and Limitations
Despite the potential desirability of Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries, there are plenty of risks, both for the countries-of-origin and for those hiring. One potential risk is dragging states into direct clashes. The United States, for example, has already carried out airstrikes that killed Russian Wagner mercenaries in Syria. A proliferation of Russian veterans into Wagner or other conflict zones could lead to a recurrence of such episodes, even if unintentionally—with the inevitable escalation of bilateral tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Geopolitics aside, other legal questions and complications loom. What happens if a Ukrainian veteran abroad kills the national of a third country? And what are the moral implications if the answer depends on whether he serves as a legionnaire, contractor, or in another role? Likewise, what about if a Russian-staffed PMC captures a Western citizen? In 2022, several Western combatants on Ukraine’s side volunteers were captured and later detained by the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, with some even being sentenced to death. In another instance, Americans fighting for Ukraine reported having been tortured in Russian captivity. Throughout this period, their home countries, like the United Kingdom, were shown to have virtually no capacity in freeing their captured fighting citizens since it ultimately took Saudi mediation to release the men.
While often the legal questions surrounding foreigners who join wars abroad have tended to focus on who joins and how, the status of individuals captured in foreign conflicts is an equally pressing policy issue. Captured foreigners fighting for Ukraine became fodder for Russian propaganda videos in which they were often forced to denounce their home states. Russia, at least, also used the foreign nationality of volunteers in Ukraine to cast doubt on their legal status and protections by the Geneva conventions, accusing them of espionage, mercenary activity, or other crimes. Far from isolated incidents, if Russian and Ukrainian veterans end up spreading across the world, the situation could become far messier–not only for the ongoing conflict, but for those they join abroad.
Worsening relations between Russia and the United States can also result in contracting states being caught in the economic or political crossfire. The possibility of designating the Wagner Group (and potentially groups like it) as a foreign terrorist organization can significantly hurt African states that rely on them. The United States’ willingness to use sanctions as a tool of first resort, despite questionable efficacy, is likely to expand alongside the growth of a Russian mercenary sector. It is difficult to predict what will be the impact of Ukrainian mercenaries fighting but it is not unimaginable for Russian officials to view their deployment with suspicion and that they could become targets in other conflicts, especially if they are sent to fight Russian mercenaries.
Just like counterinsurgency forces may have combat experience with inadequate applicability to conventional warfare, the reverse may also be true. Wars in the foreseeable future are still likely to be predominantly defined by an asymmetric style, with civil wars being more likely than inter-state wars. If that remains the case, it is not self-evident that experience with tank maneuvers or artillery-centered warfare will be all that relevant in other wars. Despite this, with many militaries often fighting as if intrastate conflicts were conventional wars, governments with urgent security needs may choose to accept any form of experience when hiring foreigners rather than run the risk of losing their wars.
Ukraine’s close alignment to the West, especially the United States, means that it is not a truly free actor and this likely could apply to the deployment of Ukrainian mercenaries. Though schisms have emerged at times between Kyiv and Western capitals, as with the explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline or on initial Russo-Ukrainian negotiations, Ukraine will have to walk a fine line in geopolitics in the coming months and years. President Zelenskyy has been clear about Kyiv’s desire to join NATO—an onerous process in the best of circumstances. Should Washington or key parties balk at the prospect of Ukrainian veterans fighting abroad, Kyiv would face the difficult task of enforcing a ban on its citizens seeking to serve elsewhere.
While Moscow’s ability to formulate an independent foreign policy leaves it far more able to exercise discretion, Wagner’s recent aborted coup could leave President Putin cold to the idea of permitting Russians serving outside his direct control.
As hostilities go on, the number and quality of would-be mercenaries is also impacted. This is particularly true on the Ukrainian side, which already suffered from a relative lack of manpower. By the autumn of 2023, the average age of a Ukrainian soldier was 43 years old, a figure likely to continue to increase the longer there is fighting. While the average of the Russian soldier is also increasing, thanks to its larger population it is likely not aging at a similar rate. In any case, with both sides incurring casualties and their troops becoming older, in the absence of any large-scale infusion of younger and healthier bodies to the frontline, the number of physically fit and experienced troops able to transition to the world of PMCs may be limited.
When the conflict in Eastern Europe comes to an end, the temptation to convert Russian and Ukrainian veterans into guns for hire will be great, not just for those leaving the Ukrainian battlefield but also for potential employers. While the capacity to recruit these battle-hardened warriors will likely exist, what remains to be seen is the will, its implementation, and its effects. To avoid a proliferation of combatants throughout the world’s various war zones, Moscow and Kyiv but also other capitals will need to be mindful of the challenges inherent to mass demobilization.
The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).